A glimpse into the launch of Fort Smith's 1st aviation diploma program

Six students from across the N.W.T make up the first class for the two-year aviation management diploma program at the Terry Harrold School of Aviation.

All 6 students in 2-year aviation program are from the N.W.T.

A plane sits in the snow at the Fort Smith Airport. The first class for the aviation management diploma program started in January. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The first day back at school after the holidays had a different meaning for six students in Fort Smith, N.W.T. 

They are the first students in a two-year aviation management program at the Terry Harrold School of Aviation, located on the grounds of the Sub-Arctic Leadership Training College.

The school has been in operation since May 2019 for students who are completing the air time for their private pilot licences on their own time. Those students are not part of the newly launched diploma program. 

The aviation management diploma program marks the first time the school will be training students with no previous background in the industry. After the two-year program, students will walk away with a commercial pilot licence as well as an aviation management diploma.

The main building of the Terry Harrold School of Aviation is on the grounds of Sub-Arctic Leadership Training College in Fort Smith. The building is a short drive from the city's downtown and close to the Fort Smith Airport, where students will be interacting with the planes hands-on. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Challenges of northern flight

The six students will split their time between a small campus downtown and Northwestern Air Lease's hangar at the Fort Smith Airport. 

The required curriculum for all pilots is set by Transport Canada.

Over the next two years, these students will take all the required courses, including how to fly single and multiple engine planes over water and land, night piloting and weather reporting. 

Chief flight instructor Raphaël Jeansonne-Gélinas, left, teaches his students some lessons in a small plane at the Northwestern Air Lease hangar in Fort Smith. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Jim Heidema, the chief operating officer of Northwestern Air Lease, said pilots in the North have additional challenges they need to learn in order to be successful in the air.

They need to learn how to land on gravel runways, how to fly through snowstorms, and what to do if landing at an unregulated airport.

Jeansonne-Gélinas and his students brave -30 temperatures to visit float planes outdoors on the Fort Smith Airport's runway. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Chief flight instructor Raphaël Jeansonne-Gélinas said the school has added courses like airmanship in the North and business management to address the unique challenges of northern aviation.

"Flying up here is different than to fly down South where there's lots of resources," Jeansonne-Gélinas said. "Here, we're more [by] ourselves, so we need to have better specific skills." 

Jeansonne-Gélinas checks the right window of the aircraft to see if anyone is coming before pulling into the runway of the airport. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

But Jeansonne-Gélinas said his first impression of the class of 2022 is that they're up for the task. 

"They seem motivated," he said.

Students come from across N.W.T.

Student Loyal Letcher grew up flying as a passenger to and from his family's lakeside lodge in Fort Simpson. Letcher said he wants to start his own small flying business in Fort Simpson.

Aviation management student Loyal Letcher, centre, walks through the hangar at the Fort Smith Airport. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"I hope to be able to fly a plane after this, but the business management skills that they give me will be useful in the future," he said.

Jeffrey Jewell, from Fort Smith, started his career in accounting after high school, but wasn't satisfied. He moved back to his community to pursue aviation. 

"I want to do something interesting," he said. 

Jeffrey Jewell, right, looks at one of the planes in the Northwestern Air Lease hangar. He is one of six students in the first aviation management program at the Terry Harrold School of Aviation. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Slowing the 'revolving door'

All six students in this year's program are born and raised northerners. 

Northwestern Air Lease's Heidema said the school is hoping to recruit northern and Indigenous students to their ranks and possibly hire them once the term is over. 

"I guarantee it — they will get jobs, either with us or with others," Heidema said. "There's a huge thirst in the North for pilots." 

Jim Heidema, the chief operating officer of Northwestern Air Lease, keeps notes on his office wall of things to do for the school. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Northwestern Air Lease lost a couple of captains to larger airlines last year. Heidema said the company has reduced some flights in January and February to make up for the loss.

He said he hopes the school's strategy of recruiting northern pilots will eventually help slow the exodus of young pilots to southern airlines. 

"We have nobody [pilots] from the North that flies with us, they're all from the South," he said. "They come up, they stay with us two to five years and then they're gone."

A plane stands still at the Fort Smith Airport. This is one of the planes students will be learning how to pilot during the two-year program. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Heidema said he has a good feeling about the class of 2022. 

"They're northern kids, they'll stay in the North. They earn a very good income, they're home every night ... and we can slow the revolving door." 

Prospective students who want to join this year's class can still register for the two-year course until the end of January. Those who register late can make up missed time with night courses in March, said instructor Jeansonne-Gélinas.


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